Omicron variant: World races to contain new Covid threat

According to WHO, early evidence suggests the variant carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with others



People lineup to get tested for Covid at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg. — AP
People lineup to get tested for Covid at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg. — AP

By AP

Published: Sat 27 Nov 2021, 3:27 AM

Nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the world raced on Friday to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fuelled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent.

A World Health Organisation panel named the variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” US President Joe Biden said of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters: “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

Omicron’s actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted Covid-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

ALSO READ:

In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.

Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.

“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

Omicron has now been seen in travellers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.

There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.

Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.

Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index closed down 2.3 per cent its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged about 13 per cent.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Members of the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”

She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”

“It’s a suspicious variant,” said Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister in Belgium, which became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island, where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new variant was “a great concern” that “should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations”.

Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers' exact vaccination status.

Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than 6 per cent of people in Africa have been fully immunized against Covid-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses.”

The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing Covid-19 could be reversed.

“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have “not yielded a meaningful outcome.”


More news from coronavirus